The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Part 2 – Trauma Experiences
Especially for those of us who have experienced trauma(s), stories have a strong hold on us (if you haven’t had a chance to read “The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Part 1 – Self-Talk”, click here to read that first before continuing with this article).
Trauma is a word that is often misused and misunderstood. A trauma can be defined as a defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” or “physical injury”. Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that damage your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can result in trauma, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm.
One shared experience can impact two different people in very different ways. It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
Having a traumatic experience can make it feel like our world is flipped upside down and turned inside out. When we experience trauma, our mind flips to survival mode, looking to how it knows best to protect us and to make sense of everything that has happened. Our survival method comes from our first experience of a perceived threat or danger. Often, this may include a sense of isolation and putting a wall up from anyone or anything that we perceive could cause harm. At times, it can be quite common to dissociate – a coping mechanism we use to detach from a very distressing emotional experience, and from any interactions or situations that elicit reminders of this experience. Forms of this may include depersonalization, psychological numbing, disengagement, or amnesia.
Here are some common things you might experience and the stories you may tell yourself after a traumatic experience:
- Everything is fine. Nothing happened. I’m okay. I don’t recall any of that anyways.
- There is nowhere safe and no one safe to be around. I’m all alone in this. I can’t trust anything or anyone.
- That was my fault. I put myself in that situation. I should have done something else.
- What was that? That was so confusing. What happens now?
There are many ways our mind may try to make sense of trauma. It can try to erase it from our memories, make us believe things about ourselves or others, and/or make us feel confused and shocked. All of these responses make sense, because our mind is really trying to protect us after a trauma. It’s okay to let our minds tell us these stories.
For some, we might have had these trauma experiences and stories replaying in our head for a long time. For others, we might want to be rid of these stories and move on because these stories are distressing, impacting our life negatively, or no longer helpful. For others, anger is the first sign that we want to move on from these stories.
Here are some helpful ways temporarily cope with these negative or uncertain thought patterns:
- Be kind to yourself. These stories have existed to protect you and to see them from another perspective can bring a lot of pain and anger. It’s okay to feel them and give yourself time to heal.
- Although you may have been hurt, you deserve self-love and self-compassion. These are two key components of your healing process. Remember, you are lovable and deserving of positive experiences.
- Share your story with people you feel safe with and can trust. It will be important that you tell the person you’re sharing this story with that this is something vulnerable to you and if you can, give them a brief summary (e.g. “I want to tell you something and it is very hard for me to talk about because it’s a traumatic experience for me”).
- It is normal to feel uncomfortable when discussing trauma. With a therapist, or supportive family/friend, remember that you will never be in danger. If it feels too bad, you can always stop sharing.
Unlike trying to move away from our negative and critical self-talk in Part 1 of this series “The Stories We Tell Ourselves”, it is best to seek professional support in understanding trauma stories. There are many complex layers and very difficult emotions associated with unraveling a traumatic experience. A therapist can help in trauma counselling to develop skills to manage the distressing feelings that come with telling these stories. Do not push yourself to share or “move on” – that can be equated to going to the gym and exercising a sore muscle, which usually ends up in further injury and pain. When you are ready to process the past, please reach out.
These trauma narratives, or stories we tell ourselves, are used to help survivors of trauma make sense of their experiences, while also acting as a form of exposure to painful memories.
Without treatment, the memories of a trauma can feel like sorting through a pile of dirty laundry—an unbearable wash of images, sounds, and emotions. In therapy, sharing and expanding upon a trauma narrative allows you to organize your memories, making them more manageable, and diminishing the painful emotions you carry.
To learn more about how we can support you in understanding and developing your story with counselling, contact Vivian Zhang at firstname.lastname@example.org.